Listening to your muse, Pt. 2
Last week, I blogged about listening to your muse. Of course, I have a feeling most of you don’t have a muse that is as loud, annoying and evil as mine happens to be. Mine wouldn’t know now to be retiring and quiet if both our lives depended on it. Because of that, I don’t have much choice in the matter. When Myrtle the Muse decides I need to listen, she does her very best to make sure I do. If I refuse, she punishes me. How, you ask, does a muse punish her writer? In one instance, Myrtle demanded that I listen, over and over and over again, to the soundtrack of Mama Mia. The movie soundtrack. The soundtrack sung mainly by folks who should never open their mouths to sing in public. I wasn’t a big Abba fan before then. Now, I absolutely detest the group.
I want to apologize for not responding to most of the comments last week. Between work (writing and editing my own stuff as well as a couple of side editing jobs), family and a nagging injury that is going to require surgery sooner or later, time got away from me. I promise to do better today.
The reason I wanted to talk some more about listening to your muse is simple. The other day, I was talking with another writer, one wanting to go the traditional publishing path, who insisted the only way to get in with one of the Big 5 was to write to the trend. In this case, the author was writing their own version of Twilight. Now, I haven’t read anything but the first book of the series and have studiously avoided the movies. Even so, I know the basic plot and, in the course of discussing John’s (not his real name) work, I commented that it sounded an awful lot like Twilight.
Oh how he beamed. He was thrilled I recognized it. He worried people wouldn’t because he had switched the sexes of the main characters. He had also set it in the Southwest instead of the Northwest. Oh, and they were about to go to college instead of being in high school. Best of all — at least according to him — he had figured out a way for the vamps to be out in the sunlight without sparkling.
Yes, that sound you hear is the echo of me beating my head against the wall.
The first thing we did was talk about how he needed to be sure he filed off the serial numbers. He assured me he had. Still not convinced but knowing that wasn’t an argument I was going to win just then, I let it drop. After all, he was just telling me about the story. I hadn’t read it yet. So maybe he had filed the numbers enough to make the story his own.
While I’m a fan of good urban fantasy and modern fantasy, I’m not a big vampire fan. I think too many paranormal romances, most of them badly written, have spoiled vamps for me. Then there is the whole things about basically making love to a corpse and, well, EWWWW! Of course, I also keep hearing our own Kate asking in her inimitable style about how certain parts of the vampire’s anatomy would work without blood flow. That’s our Kate for you. Always spoiling the dream with a dash of Aussie common sense. VBEG. Anyway, because of all that, I knew part of my resistance to John’s idea might be my own feelings about vampires as romantic leads and, well, wondering why in the world someone who has lived (if you can call it living) for hundreds of years would want to pair up with a giggling, pimply teen.
Finally, I asked John what he planned on doing with the book when he finished it. He had that figured out as well. He was going to submit it to one of the big publishers and make a million bucks just like Meyer did. After all, he was a better writer than she was. He was writing from the male point of view, so he would be tapping an underrepresented part of the market and, after all, YA and New Adult markets were hot, hot, hot.
I did get excuse myself and got up from the table, ostensibly to get another cup of coffee. The reality was I needed to figure out how to encourage him to finish the project — something he has yet to do with any other project — while giving him the bad news that the likelihood of getting a contract was only slightly better than him becoming the next Stephanie Meyer with this particular book.
You see, the problem isn’t that John is a bad writer. He’s not. He is, in fact, one of the most natural storytellers I’ve come across in a long time. Better yet, he has a pretty solid grasp of the mechanics of writing. But, like so many new writers, he hasn’t finished a project, much less sent it out to make the rounds of agents and publishers. He hasn’t done his homework into what the current market is, for both indie and traditionally published books. Nor has he researched the requirements needed to get his manuscript over the transom at the Big 5 and how long that can take.
So, I spent a few moments trying to gather my thoughts. I wanted to encourage him but I wanted him to understand the challenges he faced. And, for a few moments at least, I wanted to be anywhere but there.
I finally asked John why he had chosen to write his Twilight-esque book. The other work I’d seen from him had been solid mysteries. So this departure, not only in genre but in target audience, threw me. His answer was simple and, unfortunately, one I had heard before from other writers. He had thought to write something like Twilight because his kids had all read the series and loved it. All their friends loved it as well. Movies were made from it. If he could write something that would make young people read and make money from it, all was good.
Except the problem with that is he wasn’t writing to his strengths . Nor was he following the current trends for his target audience. Twilight is still selling but not like it did. Other books, Harry Potter follow-ups, science fiction and fantasy are selling better. John still wasn’t convinced. So I pulled up Amazon on my tablet and had him look at the different best seller lists there as well as at B&N. Then I pulled up Twilight and had him look where it was ranking high. His eyes bugged out and he went deathly pale to see it in the top 25 in sub-sub-sub-categories like YA Dating and Sex.
But he had this book all plotted out and he just knew the publishers would want it. It was based on a best seller.
I then pointed him to when the books were published. These books weren’t published a year or two ago. The last book came out, if I remember correctly, at least 4 or 5 years ago. Then, rubbing salt in John’s wounds and not liking it, I had a serious talk with him about how long it can take to shop a book around if you want to go traditional. We talked about how many traditional publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. That means you have to find an agent. That takes time. Then that agent has to shop your book around. More time. If the book is accepted, you have to approve the contract, go through edits and then, if all works out, it will finally be published. None of which happens quickly in the grand scheme of things. So, realistically, he wouldn’t see the book in print for at least two years after finishing the first draft if he managed to find an agent and sell it to one of the Big 5. How far out of the “trend” he was trying to ride would he be then.
However, I reminded him, that didn’t mean he couldn’t write the book. His first hurdle was to actually finish it. Then I asked the one question I’d been fighting. How did he feel writing the book? For a long moment, he said nothing. Then he admitted writing the book had been harder than anything he’d ever tried before. He didn’t understand it. After all, the basic formula was there. All he had to do was follow it. But, every time he sat down to write, his mind went to other things, other stories that seemed a lot more interesting.
That simple question brought a smile to his face and he began to talk — and talk and talk and talk. He had another book outlined in his mind. A mystery and one that made sense and intrigued me as he discussed it. As he spoke, it became clear to both of us that this was not a case of popcorn kittens where he was simply being distracted because he had reached a difficult part of a project. No, this was his muse trying to tell him he was doing something wrong. In this case, he was trying to force himself to write something he knew on a subconscious level wouldn’t work. He might not have realized the reasons but the instinct was there, warning him he was going down a wrong path.
By the time we left the coffee shop an hour or so later, he had come to a couple of conclusions. The first was that he needed to write the mystery we’d discussed. The second was that he was still going to write the Twilight-based book but write it in his own way. He would let it sit on the back burner while he wrote the mystery and let the ideas percolate. I have a feeling that, when he gets back to it, his muse will have taken it down a very different path than the one it’s been on.
I guess this is a long and very rambling way of saying that writing to trend doesn’t always work, especially if you don’t properly identify what the current trend is. Even if you do, there is no guarantee it will work for you. That’s especially true if you are going the trad publishing route because of the time involved to work your way through the process. If you find yourself staring at the keyboard, feeling as if something is wrong and you can’t figure out what, talk it out. Or put the project aside for a bit and let it percolate on the back brain. In other words, listen to your gut or your muse or whatever you want to call it.
And, fyi, I do follow my own advice on this. It is how I wound up writing Slay Bells Ring, Witchfire Burning (Eerie Side of the Tracks Book 1) and Skeletons in the Closet (Eerie Side of the Tracks). These three books were not even on the radar a year and a half ago. But they came along at a time when I needed to step back from the different series that I had been working on. I needed a change as a writer and I needed the challenge that writing in a different genre presented. What I didn’t expect was that writing Slay Bells Ring would lead to not only a new series but one that mixed mundane with supernatural. Then there is the romance and the mystery. Oh, and let’s not forget the loved ones who return home after their own funerals — and they aren’t zombies, ghosts or vamps. Thank goodness the local undertaker has figured out special “treatments” for them.